Death note?

12 February, 2008 at 8:17 pm (game design) (, , , )

There exists an anime called Death Note. I have seen some episodes of it. Premise: A college student finds a notebook. Writing a name on it causes the death of the named person. Kills criminals. Implausible plots and death gods are involved.

Why is the relevant? Well, Thalin just finished he SW d20 game he GM’d in the Monday (university) group. I’ll run a one-shot, or maybe even longer, game with inspiration from the aforementioned anime. (Implying that I steal the idea of death note and ignore everything else.)


I’ll likely go with Egypt. Something like Indiana Jones, tech-wise. Other possible setting is South or Meso-America. Doesn’t matter that much, anyway.

Characters are people who organised an excavation to get hold of the fabled Book of the Dead or Book of Death. Whatever. Write any name on it and think about the person and he will die. Possible elaboration: Death occurs within an hour and not immediately, character can determine the method of death, some sort of sign is left, the killed follow the character as undead bodyguards, character turns into undead, … It is quite easy to come up with more.

Characters should either know each other well (in which case getting the item is of extreme importance) or be strangers who have used false identities so as to not give each other power over themselves. Either works.


This is what I call a generic system. It makes relatively few assumptions. It does have a new way to roll dice because I like experimenting.

Characters are defined by an archetype: Something that tells their general skill-set and way to solve problems. Occupation is a good idea. In addition, all player characters and important NPCs have other traits. I think I’ll go with one related to appearance (like lean, scar-face, sun-burned, tidy aspect, big, kid) and one to personality (religious, friendly, scheming, irritable, curious). These are simply to make the characters easy to remember (appearance) and to play (personality). More can be added in play as explained soon.


Resolution is engaged if and only if there is a consequence to both succeeding and failing such that both take the game to interesting directions.

Dice pool. Get two dice if doing something clearly suitable to the archetype (soldier shooting or marching, chemist investigating a foreign susbtance), one die for something related to the archetype (journalist repairing a camera, guide telling about local legends of man-eating ghouls), one die for every relevant trait, up to two dice for favourable circumstances, variable number of dice roll-over from any linked rolls. Also: One die for every trait the opponent has that hinders the opponent. If you have no dice, you get one and the opponent’s pool is doubled. If neither would get any dice, both get one. If a roll is not opposed, GM sets a suitable amount of dice for it.

Before any dice are rolled, the consequences for succeeding or failing are described by GM. They are open to negotiation. After they have been agreed upon (negotiation is rare), dice are rolled as follows: Both sides total their dice and roll them (example sets: {1, 2, 2, 4, 4}, {2, 3, 3, 6}). Matching results are negated so that both sides lose an equal number of dice (example continues: both have one 2 and one 3, so lose one of both => {1, 2, 4}, {3, 3, 6}). Highest number indicates the triumphant side (the second, 4<6). Number of dice the winner has that are greater than all the dice the opponent has indicate the number of successes the winner got (6>4, 3<4 => 1 success). This number can be rolled over to any roll that is clearly linked to this one.

Foo points

Every system needs foo points. I might call them willpower in honour of WoD or maybe something setting-appropriate. Any ideas?

Players start with 2 or 3 foo points. Foo points do any of the following but only when rolling the dice, up to veto by other participants in the game:

  • Define a new trait for your character. This must be relevant to the roll at hand, either beneficial or harmful, and does contribute a die to the roll. “Did I mention my char is a pretty good swimmer?”
  • Define a new trait for an NPC in the conflict, up to the condition above. I am not certain of including this.
  • Get 2 dice in the conflict. Use before rolling. “I buy flowers and chocklad to her before knocking on her door.”
  • Spend n to get n dice in the conflict. Use after rolling. “The dog is about to catch me when a hare jumps from the bushes. Dog runs after it, barking loudly.”
  • Give to another player for whatever reason, but hopefully for entertaining play.
  • Remove a trait the character has grown over after demonstrating said development in the conflict. This probably won’t happen in such a short game.

Foo points can be earned in the following ways:

  • Get them from another player, hopefully due to entertaining play.
  • Get them from GM due to good (role)play.
  • Get one when your trait gives a die to your opponent in a conflict.

I’ll use whatever small objects I happen to find to represent foo points and kill book-keeping.

Designer’s rambles

Chargen is quick and simple. I can drop movie references (quality movies like Mummy [who may return], Indiana Jones) if someone gets stuck. Character development, if any, happens in play. Players have narrative power if they want to seize it, but doing such is not mandatory.

Dice are rolled when it matters and players can, if they care about it, influence the result significantly. (Forge theory or at least Ron Edwards would call this a position mechanic or some such.) This also has the tendency to build more colourful fiction as a side effect. As a bonus: Resolution practically always resolves something. Draws are rare and can only happen when both sides have the same amount of dice. Also: Adding dice after the roll can, in certain situations, wildly alter the result.

Giving foo points for good roleplaying is something that keeps me active and watching the performance of people. I just need to lower my standards to get the foo flowing properly.

The situation: General structure is one of my favourites; there is this powerful MacGuffin. You are about to get it. Who will take it? Who will get to use it? Will the others be killed? After that has been resolved, the nature of the game changes significantly. The main theme becomes: You have the power to kill anyone. Any public person at all. Anyone who has ever slighted you. Ultimate power. Ultimate corruption?


  1. Hacking together a game « Cogito, ergo ludo. said,

    […] as satisfied, or have run out of traits they intend to use, the dice are compared as per a method I have used before: First remove opposing and equal dice, then the side with highest remaining die is the winner, […]

  2. Ropecon play report 2 - Blowing up (portions of) a pyramid « Cogito, ergo ludo. said,

    […] preparation for this game consisted of writing character sheets. In addition, I had run something similar […]

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